America lost a literary treasure when A.B. Guthrie Jr. died recently at his place in Montana beneath his beloved big sky.

Requiems are a bit out of my line, but some things need to be said about Bud Guthrie, who left some very big footprints in his wake.He never stopped leaving his mark, almost up to his death at age 90. He saw his 15th and final book published (by Harper), "A Field Guide to Fiction Writing," only a few months before.

Before he was an author, Bud was a newspaperman. He gave me my first full-time newspaper job at The Lexington (Ky.) Leader and got me off and running in a profession that employed me for more than 45 years.

That was in January 1944. He'd already been newspapering in Lexington for 18 years, first as a reporter, then city editor and editorial writer. He became executive editor a year later.

He was tough and demanding but fair and honest. He was something of a crusader who delighted in poking the pompous and powerful. But what set him apart was the interest he took in coaching he gave young would-be professionals.

Later that year he went off to Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. He was 43. It was a huge opportunity, of which he made the most. The result was "The Big Sky," a marvelous novel about the mountain men of the early West that scorned the "Western Myth" of pulp fiction. It was published in 1947 to great critical success.

That was followed two years later by "The Way West," which won the Pulitzer Prize. Others followed, helping to build his reputation as one of the 20th century's top Western historical novelists.

Guthrie's magnificent prose brought reality to Western fiction. His was not the mythical West of movies and pulpy potboilers. This was life, raw and difficult.

He had quit the Leader in 1947 and in 1953, returned to his origins, Montana, where his father had settled in 1901. Bud bought a house in Great Falls, and later some "rock-and-jack pine land" four miles west of Chair Mountain and 25 miles north of Choteau.

Eventually, he settled there in a comfortable home he called "The Barn," in a place bare of fences or other fetters. The only barrier was the great blue mountain hulking on the horizon to the west. Above was that breathtakingly wide sky.

The spot was pure Guthrie.

When I saw him last summer, Bud wasn't well, but his eyes were bright as the Montana sun and his mind as keen as a figure of speech in one of his novels. He remained a rebel, outraged by wrong, unwilling to suffer fools lightly. Feisty. Rambunctious. Still pushing.

He turned 90 Jan. 13 in Bismarck, N.D., where he and his wife Carol spent the winter. She told me they had been back at the ranch 13 days when Bud died. Which, I'm sure, is where he wanted to be.

He gave some of the reasons in "The Blue Hen's Chick," his autobiography:

"Time and adjustment and liking and my sense of context. The mind-heard echoes of old trappers on the beavered streams. The grind of prairie schooners. A buffalo skull in a wallow . . . mountain water over shining rock . . . stars like bonfires. Clouds swelling in the bellies of the peaks in Glacier Park. A cottontail at the edge of a thicket. A horseman and a bronc. Old Chief Big Lake's grave on a benchland facing westward over the valley of the Teton.

"Fishing streams and one trout rising to my Royal Coachman, and my not caring much if it should get away . . . The wild geese V-ing, shouting their adventure . . . A different, a less harried, a more open and a better world. My world."

Nobody said it better.